It would have been a fairy tale come true if Ajax would have won their fifth group match in this year's UEFA Champions League against AC Milan. With so many injured players, two key suspensions and strategic adaptations it seemed almost impossible to begin with. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic also suffered an injury in the first half, the sting was taken out of Ajax's offense. Yet Ajax stayed in the game for long, but one mistake proved fatal. Cafu crossed, Shevchenko scored, 0-1. The relief came in Vigo, where Club Brugge equalised in added time. Now a draw in Brugge can be enough for Ajax to reach the next round.
It will be tense in the last group match. Ajax face Club Brugge, who are in fourth place with five points. Ajax and Celta de Vigo have six. AC Milan have ten after defeating Ajax and are certain of a place in the next round of the UEFA Champions League.
It was no surprise that Milan won for the fourth time in a year. In previous encouters Ajax always had the feeling to be playing as good as or better than the Italian giants, but the victory always eluded them. This time it was different.
Without Hatem Trabelsi, Zdenek Grygera, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sonck, John OBrien and Steven Pienaar, and Ibrahimovic having to come off in the first half, Ajax missed too much extra quality to hurt AC Milan. But the ones that played, were certainly not to blame.
The in Europe inexperienced Johnny Heitinga, Anthony Obodai and Nicolae Mitea were among the starters. They had to compete with seasoned pros like Inzaghi, Shevchenko and Cafu. The difference was too great to overcome on this night. ,,It was very difficult for us", coach Ronald Koeman knew. ,,You can hope that a ball will drop well from a corner or a free kick, but it is not enough. Of the four recent matches against AC Milan, this was the one in which we had the smallest chance.''
That did not mean the home side played badly. On the contrary. ,,Defensively we were solid'', said Koeman. ,,That is why it hurts that Milan benefit from one turnover from us in midfield. Heitinga played very well, defensively, speed-wise and with his passing opportunities. For him and for me as a coach it was a test if he could play at this level. He has been out for a year and only played against ADO Den Haag, but he came through. He has shown me he is back all the way.''
Six minutes into the second half AC Milan struck in familiar fashion. Ajax lost the ball halfway down the pitch, Cafu was allowed to get in a good cross and Shevchenko left Lobont without a chance: 0-1.
Only occasionally Ajax were able to fire at Milan's goalkeeper Dida, but never with real danger. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who sustained a foot injury in the first half, the team simply lacked the firepower. ,,I have to give my team compliments about the way we hung on for so long. Look at all the guys who could not play'', said Koeman, who was happy with the 1-1 draw between Celta de Vigo and Club Brugge. ,,If AC milan do their job against Celta, we only need a draw against Brugge to go through. I am disappointed with tonight's result, but with six points we still have our fate in our own hands.''